The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Day the Earth Stood Still

The film that gave one of Jabba's thugs his name, shares themes with Star Wars, and more.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, originally released in 1951, is a black-and-white science fiction thriller directed by Robert Wise. Wise might be more well known as the editor of Citizen Kane and the director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Sound of Music, but The Day the Earth Stood Still is a no less important piece of his oeuvre. It tells the story of Klaatu, an alien traveler who has a message for Earth. When communicating to representatives of all of Earth’s nations at once proves difficult, he has to come up with alternatives.

The film opens much like Star Wars, in that it has the iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare and cuts directly to space and the opening titles. This was a landmark film in science fiction, hailed at the time of its release as one of the best science fiction films ever made and it’s difficult to disagree with that assessment, even today.

The Clone Wars - Hondo Ohnaka and Count Dooku with the saucership

After the credits are finished, the film opens with a UFO landing in Washington, D.C., which fans of Star Wars: The Clone Wars will recognize as looking quite a bit similar to the saucer ships employed by Weequay pirates like fan-favorite Hondo Ohnaka.

An alien named Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, leaves the ship alongside his robotic bodyguard, Gort. Although he has a message for Earth, the army opens fire upon him and he learns a valuable lesson about the war-like nature of Earth. Star Wars fans are no doubt one step ahead of me, since they recognize the name Klaatu.

Return of the Jedi - Klaatu

In Return of the Jedi, Klaatu was a mechanic who worked at Jabba’s palace and was portrayed by Corey Dee Williams (the son of Billy Dee Williams.) He tried confronting Luke Skywalker atop Jabba’s sail barge, but Luke had other plans. This isn’t the only name in Star Wars that came from The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the 1951 film, Klaatu tells his companion that if anything should happen to him, she needs to speak a phrase to his protector Gort, and Gort will make things right. The phrase? “Klaatu barada nikto.”

It’s a phrase that’s been popular through the history of genre films, lifted for Star Wars, Army of Darkness, and others.

Star Wars - Barada

Barada, the second word in that infamous phrase, made its way into Star Wars as the name of a Klatoonian slave who also worked in the mechanics pool at Jabba’s palace. He was cut down by Luke Skywalker over the Great Pit of Carkoon.

Star Wars The Clone Wars - Ima Gun-Di

The third word in the phrase, Nikto, made its way into Star Wars as the name of Klaatu’s species. But Klaatu wasn’t the only Nikto in the Star Wars universe. Some were seen in The Phantom Menace working on podracers. The most well-known Nikto (aside from Klaatu) is Jedi Master Ima Gun-Di who served with the Jedi Order during the Clone Wars. He was killed on Ryloth, helping to liberate the Twi’leks.

The Phantom Menace - The galactic Senate

Like Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still is also a film with a social conscience, and the gridlocked political system on the war-torn Earth world is very much the same, cynical system George Lucas paints in the prequels. By Revenge of the Sith, Padmé seems to have learned the lesson that the Earth needed to at Klaatu’s behest: that violence wouldn’t solve anything and that the warring parties in their world needed to set aside their differences and compromise. Klaatu came to Earth to bring that message and was killed for it, and Padmé suffered a similar fate.

Star Wars in 1977 at the Chinese Theatre

Another fun tie between The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Wars comes in the form of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. This is the theater Star Wars opened in, with lines around the block. R2-D2 and C-3P0 have their hand and footprints imprinted in front of the theater in a cement block. Gort, the killer robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still, was played by Lock Martin — an usher at the theater in 1951 when he was cast in the film (mainly owing to his height).

The Day The Earth Stood Still, despite its age, holds up as a great science-fiction film. With a tight, 92-minute running time and a bold anti-war theme, it still plays well to modern audiences, since the world still hasn’t learned the lessons the film sought to teach. The music, a double-theremin score composed by Bernard Herrmann, is still top notch (in fact, it’s said that this was the score that inspired Danny Elfman to get into composing). Although science fiction films of the 1950s have that stereotypical silver-space suit and UFO aesthetic, this film stands head and shoulders above the rest of the era and is worth watching even today.

Availability: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. Currently, it’s streaming for free on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or for a modest rental fee on other streaming platforms.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.comHe’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.